Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVII No. 2, May 1-15, 2017

A vidwan open to all music

– Geetha Bennett (an accomplished vainika)

Dr. S
Dr. S. Ramanathan

As my father and guru Dr. S. Ramanathan’s centenary is coming up I have been thinking, talking, and writing about him. Some days ago, discussing a topic with my husband, Dr. Frank Bennett, who was my father’s veena student, I realised how much Father was interested in jazz.

When he came to teach at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, I joined him. That was the time when Frank and his friend Jeff Fuller, who were Yale University music composition students, travelled 30 miles each way to study the veena with Appa. Jeff is a guitar and bass player still living in New Haven, Connecticut, playing around his home and travelling all over the world performing jazz.

I still remember being amazed that my father, trained intensely in traditional Carnatic music, had the open mind to sing with the Yale Quadrangle Jazz Ensemble. Just before leaving for India after his commitments at Wesleyan, Appa gave a fusion concert with the young jazz musicians, including Jeff Fuller on the guitar, and Frank on the drum set. I very vividly remember that it was the blues, with Appa singing Suddha Dhanyasi raga in the chaturasra jati Ata tala of 12 beats. Frank very fondly remembers how Father came to the samam faster, every time on the dot, while the Western musicians interpreted more freely while arriving at the point.

In September 1986, Appa and mother Gowri came to stay with us in our home for a couple of months in Covina, California. Every evening after I came back from work at the Transamerica Insurance Company we would have a session of ‘Jazz Learning’. Frank would play an album of one of his favourite musicians, for instance Louis Armstrong, Monk, or Ray Charles, singing the blues. Frank would explain the basics of the numbers and I remember Appa looking at him with awe and saying that he would give anything to just transfer the ‘jazz portion’ of Frank’s brain to his own.
When I was in Connecticut with Appa, he offered me extraordinary experiences which could not be obtained anywhere else in the world. He took me to hear Andre Segovia’s solo acoustic guitar concert in Hartford, which was memorable because it was a mikeless concert. It was a full house with about a thousand people and Segovia sat at the centre of the stage, plucking on his guitar without any microphone. There was complete silence in the auditorium and he played the most beautiful compositions on that instrument.

The most different concert he took me to was one by the Mahavishnu orchestra. The group leader, John McLaughlin, was Appa’s veena student. At the McConaughey hall in Wesleyan University, John played for about 12,000 people and yet was extremely loud. It was one of the concerts I can never forget.

Another unique experience was when I got to listen to a Sunday morning choir in a Black church in Hartford. One of my father’s veena students Bruce Parson, a harpsichord player, took us to listen to the choir. The energy and the faith the group produced were amazing.

But thinking about my childhood, I am not surprised about my father’s varied interests, not only in music. He took us to all night akhandams of Hindustani concerts in Tiruvallikeni. He exposed us to movie musicals like My Fair Lady. He brought us several Western classical music LPs, one of which was the Flight of the Bumble Bee, composed by the Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. Later, in the 1990s when I performed a veena concert at Colgate University, Hamilton, N.Y., one of my father’s friends, Dr. William Skelton, and his son Bruce, requested me to play a kavadi chindu in which there was mention of the buzzing bee. It seems many years ago that Appa had compared the Flight of the Bumble Bee to the lines ‘Vandu kallai undu (the bee… after drinking the nectar)’ in the kavadi chindu.

He brought so many Hollywood movie scripts from the U.S.A., the very first time he came back, that I swear that was the reason for my interest in writing fiction.

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